Essential SF Q&A: Center for Asian American Media (CAAM)

By Pam Grady

Stephen Gong from CAAM. Photo by Tommy Lau

Stephen Gong from CAAM. Photo by Tommy Lau

The Center for Asian American Media (CAAM), originally called the National Asian American Telecommunications Association (NAATA), founded in 1980, began with a conference on the UC Berkeley campus. From there, it expanded into a vibrant cultural organization where its initiatives include CAAMFest (formerly the San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival), funding and support for independent Asian American film and media projects, educational distribution of over 250 Asian American video titles (the largest collection of its kind in the nation), and more. Stephen Gong was there at the beginning, at that first conference. For years, he served on its board of directors. Since 2006, the former Deputy Director of the Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive at the University of California, Berkeley; Program Officer in the Media Arts program at the National Endowment for the Arts; and Associate Director of the National Center for Film and Video Preservation at the American Film Institute has been CAAM’s Executive Director. Here, he talks to the Film Society about this Essential SF institution from its earliest days to the present.

Q: You’ve been associated with the organization since its founding. Tell me about those early days.

Stephen Gong: Oh wow. What’s interesting is how Berkeley and UC Berkeley filters through it. I’m a graduate of UC Berkeley. Following graduate school, I was in Washington, DC, working for the National Endowment for the Arts. I was in involved in film history and film preservation, because I had worked for the American Film Institute also.

Independent film was just getting going in a way. John Cassavetes was the known name, but this whole new generation was fermenting. It was about ’78, ’79.  We were just starting to fund independent filmmakers and a producer from San Francisco, from KQED, her name was Loni Ding, came through and she had recognized that the Corporation for Public Broadcasting had funded minority organizations, nonprofits, to ensure programming by African Americans, Latinos, and Native Americans. So, she said, ‘Shouldn’t we be in there?’ She raised the money from CPB to organize a conference at UC Berkeley. I came out to that conference and I was representing the NEA. There was an Asian American at NEH and NEA. We were kind of the only funders, so she wanted us on a panel, because she was gathering some filmmakers, just a few producers, really community activists. There were maybe 60 people there. It was a three-day conference.

Out of it NAATA was formed, National Asian American Telecommunications Association, a big mouthful. But that was it. It was really to address the lack of Asian American presence in media. We’ve always had in our DNA as public television, as one of the only places where you can see a mandate for, support for an Asian American presence. That’s how we got started and they formed a core of support for us, but then, of course, we branched out.

Q: When did that branching out start? Because it’s not too long after that you’ve got things like Chan Is Missing and independent Asian American film starting to rise up.

Photo by Tommy Lau

Photo by Tommy Lau

SG: That’s exactly right. One of the things that characterizes us in a way is that even though the population is exploding now and it’s an exciting time, but at the time, Asian Americans were a very small part of the population. So, we all kind of know one another and when you hear about someone, you want to meet them. I did meet Wayne [Wang] at that first conference. He was just starting to work on Chan Is Missing and we funded it at the NEA.

But the NAATA story, I was kind of like the Washington, DC, correspondent, the underground railroad site. So, when Jim Yee, who was the first director of NAATA, or any of the filmmakers would come through town, we would try to see one another. So, I kept up with the story, even though I was not formally involved again until the ‘80s.

Within two years, NAATA started a film festival. That may be what’s relevant in terms of our place within the film cultural scene. We wanted a natural outlet both for the works that we were trying to support for public television, but also there were so many Asian Americans trying to get a foot in and start film careers: Wayne, Steve Okazaki. Ang Lee started—not at our film festival, but at the one in New York. Then like a decade later, Mina Shum, her first narrative feature (Double Happiness) screened at our festival. We’ve always tried to keep up with who’s trying to break into the industry, but who also has a connection to Asian American identity. Those two things have to be there.

Q: How has the organization changed in the past 36 years, and especially in the past 10 since you’ve been more intimately involved?

SG: I think the fact that we’re still around is one great success. It’s an achievement…Over that time, particularly in the last 10 years, the Asian community has become the fastest growing ethnic community. In some ways, it has really come into parts of our society in a much more visible and impactful way. Clearly, in high technology, Asian Americans are large part of that. And then if you look at social media or YouTube, in some ways it’s a surprise, but not at all a surprise to understand why so many of that first generation of YouTube stars were Asian American.

We made a documentary about Jake Shimabukuro, and he was an interesting phenomenon. We did that on purpose, because here was a guy that the old world of media gatekeepers of a few major labels would not ever sign, a solo ukulele player who does not sing. But this new media form could put forward people who suddenly have millions of followers…so there’s great opportunity in a way.

To me, it’s so significant, that within the first two years of my coming back, seeing that and with Don Young, who’s really my program partner, wanting to say, ‘How do we capture that?’ Someone like a Jake Simabukuro. Anyway, Obama comes along and, in some ways, he is the fulfillment of the Chan Is Missing conundrum. Who is it that you’re looking for? We’re looking for a biracial person who really understands diversity as it’s practiced and lived in Hawaii, which is a key to this future America. It’s not about a melting pot…When you grow up, you are often a mix of five or six ethnicities, so you celebrate each of them and all that.

So, that’s where we are now in this debate and not just wanting to fit in. We want to impact and share these stories and project a way that America can become. Then, politically in the Bay Area too, if you bring in gender issues and LGBTQ issues, we’re actually always going to be multi-identity and there’s nothing wrong with that. That makes us stronger…For us, you have to believe in the power of storytelling to shift culture.

Photo by Tommy Lau

Photo by Tommy Lau

Q: What are CAAM’s current initiatives?

SG: The unstated thing—you asked about the 35 years—being an identity niche film festival in a way is a difficult and challenging thing, because we don’t want what we present in any way to be exclusionary. After all, we were founded to counter that. Then the role that film festivals traditionally played in a certain kind of ecosystem of bringing press attention so that certain films could get distribution, particularly if you’re thinking of theatrical distribution, this was all crumbling.

It just seemed like, ‘Is this where we want to be?’ I started to feel that we wanted to broaden that canvas to really talk about storytelling in a broader sense and what that can do to both change the way Asian Americans are perceived and then adding our perspective into a larger flow of cultural shift. So, that’s where we are. We brought in elements of music and food along with film. Part of that is just pragmatic. It’s based on this feeling about the importance of culture to allow people to see one another and appreciate one another’s identity and gifts in a stronger way. And food, of course, is an incredible way to tell stories. Everyone wants a kind of celebrity, and there are so few Asian American celebrities to go around, but right outside our door, we’ve got Charles Phan of Slanted Door, Martin Yan. It’s people doing historically important stuff, like Cecilia Chang. Then you’ve got young up and coming people. We’ve got great access. They appreciate that we want to tell their story.

Q: What about the home movies project I saw on the web?

SG: It’s new ways to talk about this history and share it. And it harkens back to my film preservation days and just loving film, but between the 1920s and pretty much the 1980s, you had this small gauge film. In a way, they are like little orphans. It’s really hard to preserve them as film, because the gauge is so small, but now with new digital tools, you can do high-resolution digital scans frame by frame…So we raised some money from the NEA and Rick Prelinger (Essential SF 2010) is a good friend and he actually gifted me a Chinese American family’s films. That was the core of it. I just love seeing old San Francisco and seeing Asian Americans at the zoo and at Playland at the Beach and just these glimpses of Chinatown.

We digitize the films for free, work with the families. We can do a lot of different things. It’s still exploring. We can make short films with the family narrating what it is. I can also do compilations tied to geography, like lost landscapes of Asian American San Francisco or the Central Valley. Or you can stay with the Filipino American story or the Japanese American story. So, I’m exploring that. Then we present them live with live musical accompaniment. I’m working on one right now. I’m doing the Central Valley project and it’s so cool.

Everybody’s story is important. That’s one of the pieces about media that we want to stand for, but the other one is how there are specific histories. When you do fit in and you can sort of see how a family story plays within a specific history—clearly, the Japanese American community is like that, because a lot of the films for several families start in the ‘30s. Then there’s this gap. You’ve got this terrible foreboding when you see how well they were fitting into American society [before WWII]. You see the process of becoming American in a lot of these films.

Q: Where do you see the organization going in the future?

SG: There’s that Chinese adage, ‘If you live in exciting times, there is danger and opportunity.’ I do think, in some ways, our kind of work needs to be driven by that…One of our current projects is we’re working with Ric Burns and Li-Shun Yu at Steeplechase Films, it’s a two-hour documentary called The Chinese Exclusion Act and it’s going to be broadcast soon. We’re doing community and educational outreach. That story is a story for today, even though, it’s a story about Chinese American history, particularly 1882 to 1943…It’s really about this ongoing debate over who gets to be American…One of the speakers in the film says, ‘You know, the Chinese Exclusion Act was very legal. It was democratic. It was legal. But it was wrong.’ Wherever else we go in our storytelling and in our engagement, that’s what we want to do it about. I want ‘aha!’ moments in all of the work for people to go, ‘Yeah, we see the possibility, the human possibility.’ And building a just society that celebrates wonderful works of art. It’s cultural change through artistic expression.

Essential SF is the San Francisco Film Society's ongoing compendium of the Bay Area film community's most vital figures and institutions. This year's inductees—filmmaker Peter Bratt, film organization Center for Asian American Media, festival photographer Pamela Gentile, documentary filmmaker Carrie Lozano, entertainment attorney George Rush, and film programmer Joel Shepard—were honored at the annual celebration. A key event in the Film Society's year-round appreciation of local talent, this tribute shines a light on the region's most unique and creative personalities and their invaluable contributions to the film world.